While we do not endorse the extreme statements by Amiri Baraka that have occasioned concern in the Yale community, we support an institution of higher education that is host to a diversity of views. The Afro-American Cultural Center at Yale and the Black Student Alliance declare their belief in the importance of free speech as a fundamental tenet of the University.
Yet the concept of free speech and appreciation of differing views is a difficult one when practiced. It tests our values and strikes at the core of our souls when confronted by views we do not agree with or understand. When an invitation was extended for tea to a former Israeli general and soldier it seemed appropriate that it be protested; it was appalling to hear students share anti-Palestinian remarks at a tea with Yoni Figel, also a former Israeli general; or comprehend that last week Charles Murray was invited to speak on campus, author of “The Bell Curve,” a book proffering his theory of black inferiority. However personally or collectively painful to hear their views, these guests had a right to speak here.
The many students who wanted to invite Amiri Baraka did not do so to incite tensions. Several completely disagree with much that he has to say. Yet through discourse with a well-known African-American poet and activist they seek answers to fundamental questions about his work: “Can you learn from the overall achievements of a prominent figure such as this without supporting their personal views?” “What exactly makes Baraka so controversial?” “Can one be critical of the Israeli government and not anti-Semitic?” “Why was Baraka chosen as poet laureate of New Jersey?” The dialogue may begin with Baraka, but hopefully, it will not end with him.
Amiri Baraka is not new to Yale. He was invited last spring as a panelist for a conference sponsored by an academic department; the preceding year he participated in New Haven’s International Festival of Arts and Ideas; and he is a former lecturer at Yale. Now, Baraka is currently on tour in Connecticut. He asked to visit with students and it was debated and ultimately decided by the students that they accept the invitation. Many admire his legacy and leadership in the Black Arts Movement and want to know more about him.
The Af-Am Center seeks to foster racial and ethnic pluralism, but we cannot do that by tenaciously turning away from discordant voices in our community. Moving forward, it is our hope that students, faculty, staff and administrators at Yale will fervently seek to come together and truly begin to embrace the complexity of our communities beyond mere words and occasional events. For instance, honest dialogue between black and Jewish student groups at Yale is long overdue. Serendipitously, Baraka’s visit has served as a catalyst for this discourse. In just 72 hours black and Jewish students have begun an important and necessary conversation they certainly have not had in at least 10 years or more. Let’s continue to work through this and grow in understanding the ways in which we differ and agree, both within and between cultures, race and religion.
Pamela George is assistant dean of Yale College and director of the Afro-American Cultural Center.